Orchard with ancient cultivars is the apple of my eye

Orchard with ancient cultivars is the apple of my eye
Lady Henniker apples in an old West Cork orchard. Developed in 1840 on her Suffolk estate, they remain a rare but edible memorial to the gardener who grew them, John Perkins, unnamed. Picture: Damien Enright

After an hour touring the gardens and orchard of a local farmer, I feel I should share his knowledge of old apple varieties while it is still verdant in my mind.

It was a dampish morning of intermittent rain, the wet grass underfoot cluttered with clucking hens picking at my rubber boots as if sampling them for edibility.

I wore a mac and a cap, my host, a contemporary, wore a sports jacket and no headwear. His robust hair may have been testament to the benefits

of soft rain and sea mist; the tweed jacket instead of a waterproof belied a hardiness two generations gone from my DNA.

A centre piece of the orchard was an ancient tree decked out in red apples called lady hennikers, a Victorian variety first cultivated on a Suffolk estate in 1840: it had been planted by my friend’s father perhaps 100 years ago. The lady henniker was a great stalwart of the 19th century orchard;

it eats sweetly, cooks well and makes excellent cider. It was from the leavings of other varieties, pressed for cider, that it was grown. Memorials to talent and dedication come in all forms. Here is a memorial that can be tasted, as sweet now as then, a tribute to the humble gardener who created it, unfortunately unnamed. In the annals of apple geneticists, it holds an esteemed place. Irish Seed Savers had visited it and other trees in that West Cork orchard to harvest seeds.

The apples we eat today have a romantic history and, above all other fruit, offer an almost infinite variety of flavours, colours, cooked or raw, and textures. The National Fruit Collection in England holds over 2,000 distinctive cultivars. The principal strain in ‘western’ apples, 46%,

originated in apple forests in the mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan, or Heavenly Mountains. Some of these forests still exist.

In pre-history, they were carried westward on the Great Silk Road and by accident or design, cross-pollinated with wild crab apples, 26%, like those native to Ireland and Britain, the apples of legend in both islands, WB Yeats’s “silver apples of the moon, golden apples of the sun” in the lines of ‘Wandering Aengus’. In Britain, Avalon, meaning the Island of Apple Trees, was central to the Arthurian legends and home of the wizard Merlin.

The Celts buried apples, crab apples, as food for the dead that they might be reborn: remains of apples have been found in tombs from 5,000BC in Europe and western Asia. Crabs had always been used for cider-making, and still are, but sweet dessert apples were likely brought to these islands by the Romans.

The taste of an apple seems always to have been the source of temptation and subsequent entrapment by females of males. Eve tempting poor Adam is the universally known instance but there were many others.

Connla of the Flaming Hair, son of Conn, king of Connaught, was enticed by a fairy girl to eat an apple that became whole again after it was eaten and was so sweet that he ate nothing else for a month. When the girl returned, his passion for her was such that he sailed with her in a crystal boat to an island where the trees bore apples of eternal youth although, once there, he could never return to Connaught and the land of man.

No wonder apples were known to be magic fruit. Modern science confirms it: they provide vitamins, balance digestion, lower cholesterol, feed the blood. Clearly, the axiom, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’, was based on observation, long before our time.

Meanwhile, to return to the Irish morning, my host and I walked the orchard and toured trees of varieties now become rare and ‘exotic’, Irish peach and lady’s fingers, with their distinctive flavours, and golden russet, ‘winter’ apples, ripening in late October, best eaten between October and March.

There were crab apples too, on big trees, old and heavy with fruit. In the 1900s, my friend said, farmers were given a grant for setting crab apples to grow in every field of their holdings as pollinators for their maize and cereals and other crops. His father was a great grafter of trees, once having five varieties on the one tree. Indeed my friend is a ‘grafter, too (if in a different meaning) his industry evidenced by his beehives and hens and the well-kept stone walls, perhaps 200 years old, that surround his orchard.

I came home with a bag of lady hennikers, a punnet of tomatoes and a comb of honey, and a cache of information for those who appreciate the ‘odd’ apple.

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